I was born at the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Processing Centre about 110 kilometres from Bangkok in the Thai province of Chonburi.
To get there, my parents braved five days on a fishing boat from Communist-controlled Vietnam across the South China Sea. My mother, who was 26 and five months pregnant, had only ocean water to drink during the long and perilous journey. My father, skinny and baby-faced at 27, was appointed as leader by the other asylum seekers on board, making him responsible for everyone as they braved pirate attacks, unpredictable seas and the ever-present risk of drowning and starvation.
Mum and dad survived the terrifying journey and I was born several months later. I became a beacon of hope amongst the languishing poverty at the refugee camp where the three of us called home for most of the next year. My arrival made my parents even more desperate to find somewhere to live considering we had been forced to share a tiny space of ground that was barely two meters square in size.
My parents were all thrilled when, in 1988, the Australian government granted our family asylum and we boarded a plane to the country we would soon call home. Only six-months-old at the time, I was too young to understand our good fortune, and before long we were blessed once again when my younger brother Andrew – our bicentennial baby – came along.
We set up home in a commission flat in Greater Dandenong in the 1990s and never had much in the way of possessions. Mum and dad found work and spent long hours each weekday in manual labour jobs. When the weekends came around they took my brother and I with them as they mowed lawns and did other odd jobs for extra income.
My brother and I also spent hours playing with the other kids in the street. Most of them came from around the world: Croatia, Romania, China, Iran - and I remember one kid who came from a place called Bendigo. The fact that we all looked different was of no relevance to any of us. All we cared about was who could rollerblade faster!
School provided an opportunity for me to make friends and learn about all different sorts of things. By high school I had decided that I wanted to become a lawyer so I could concentrate on helping others. Achieving this would require a high Year 12 score so I could get into the law course I wanted to get into at Monash University.
I studied hard and spent most nights after school and on weekends studying at the State Library. So I was devastated when my results came back well short of the score that would get me into my dream degree. So while most of my friends enjoyed our first year of uni, I spent my spare time at the library with my nose buried in text books. It paid off though, and I was thrilled when I was told I was eligible to transfer into an Arts/Law degree at the end of that year.
I worked hard over the next few years, before starting as a plaintiff lawyer once I had graduated. And since then I have been working tirelessly as a social justice warrior, fighting for what is fair and just in our community.
This year marks the 28th year that I have called Australia home. I am now a proud work injuries compensation lawyer who every day uses my education and skills to my clients’ advantage. The people I represent often remind me of the work ethic my hard-working parents instilled.
I don’t doubt that my own hard work has played a part in where I am today. So too have my parents, both of whom sacrificed so much to provide me with a safe and warm upbringing for which I am incredibly grateful.
But the Australian community are the unsung heroes in my story who also deserve credit. Without the kindness and support of strangers, the Australian government, my school teachers, our friends and extended family, I would never have achieved what I have.
So as we celebrate Refugee Week this year, I hope all Australians extend to those less fortunate in other parts of the world the same opportunities and protections that we enjoy and sometimes take for granted: safety from violence and death, and freedom to choose and express your political views and religious beliefs.
This year, for World Refugee Week, let us speak out against injustice. Let us appreciate the great courage and sacrifice refugees show in uprooting their families, risking their lives and often facing devastating loss or danger in the search of a basic right to life and liberty.
Let us also bring attention to the current breaches of basic human rights occurring in our detention centres, and let us support refugees in their time of greatest need as we recognise the invaluable contributions they bring, and will continue bring, to this great country.
Finally, let us never forget the important words that make up our national anthem as we forge ahead together: “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share; with courage let us all combine to Advance Australia Fair.”
Jenny Tran is a lawyer in Maurice Blackburn’s Victorian WorkCover practice. She sees clients in the Greater Dandenong region.